E-newsletters and other electronic media have made it easier than ever to reach large groups on a regular basis. In our work, however, we’ve seen recurring missteps that have left organizations frustrated when their audience doesn’t respond.

Following are tips for avoiding common pitfalls that can obscure your message or, worse, alienate your audience. Because not making a mistake isn’t enough, you’ll also find proven strategies for strengthening your newsletter to get the response you want.

1. Avoid overcrowding

One mistake we see time and again is e-newsletters that are so densely packed that they’re actively off-putting. Organizations seem to think that because they’re not paying extra for more space, they might as well include everything that might be of interest to anyone.

To hold readers’ interest, focus on a few important messages.

These organizations are paying a price, in lost readership. According to Statistic Brain, the average human attention span is just 8 seconds. (The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds, but that’s another story.)

To hold readers’ interest, it’s essential to focus on a small number of important messages. Avoid the temptation to include items of peripheral interest to make it look as if you have a lot going on. If you actually do have a lot going on, figure out what can be held for later; this will help keep your current issue focused while ensuring that your next one also has substance.

In addition to taxing readers’ patience, padding your message obscures the point you’re trying to get across. We worked with one nonprofit whose annual conference announcement was buried so far down in a lengthy list of organization news, staff profiles, and other non-essential information that no one saw it. Fortunately they had time to send a separate announcement, and registrations began pouring in.

2. Include obvious value

A newsletter should always offer something that recipients will value, whether it’s a sale, an event, or a useful piece of information. Too often, nonprofits send out missives purely to “stay in contact” for their own purposes, without thinking about the needs of those on the receiving end.

Not surprisingly, recipients don’t take too well to this treatment. If you waste their time with messages that offer nothing they want, their response will quickly move from “Ooh, what have you got for me today?” to “Ugh, what is it now?” Unsubscribing will follow.

This is not to say that your newsletter shouldn’t benefit you as well. In addition to keeping you in the minds of your customers, newsletters offer a means of enticing readers to respond in a directed way. This call to action is the most important part of your newsletter. What, exactly, do you want to recipient to do? Go to your website? Make a donation? Register for an event? Make it clear and easy for them to do so.

3. Segment your audiences

Some nonprofit newsletters seem designed to serve everyone: clients, donors, funders, members, the press, the public, even internal staff. In the end, these newsletters do a poor job communicating with anyone. We’ve seen newsletters that announce meetings to which recipients are not invited, grants for which few if any are eligible, and resources of relevance only to organization insiders.

One of the glories of e-newsletters is that they allow you to segment recipients by category.

The solution is to identify important groups that have similar interests and address each group individually. One of the glories of e-newsletters is that they allow you to segment recipients by category. You can then decide which groups should receive a tailored newsletter and which you can best address through other means.

Make sure that each form of communication has information of interest to the target group. In some cases the same information may be appropriate for different groups but with a different spin. For example, success stories can both inspire clients or members to use the organization’s services and encourage donors to give.

4. Recognize that even a targeted audience is multifaceted

The flipside of straying off-topic for a given audience is focusing too closely on a single aspect of your messaging. A recurring problem we’ve seen is organizations assuming specific traits among their targeted audience and addressing only those traits. This often results in a beeline approach to messaging that can be a huge turnoff.

We’ve heard organizations say things like, “We need to appeal to donors’ sentiment, not overwhelm them with facts” or, conversely, “Our readers care only about hard data, not about how the information is presented.” Unless you’ve done extensive qualitative and quantitative research on your audience, it’s dangerous to make these kinds of assumptions.

People perceive information through more than one filter. Just because donors care about the problem you’re addressing doesn’t mean they don’t want to see evidence of your effectiveness. Numbers are compelling, but not if readers have to work too hard to find them.

A good litmus is the “informed neighbor” test. Would the information you’re presenting interest a neighbor who knows something about the field you’re in but who doesn’t have a super-specialized interest? Then you’re probably on the right track.

5. Tailor your tone to your audience

Even organizations that do well balancing the various elements required for good content often run into problems when it comes to tone. Particularly when staff is overburdened or communications are rushed, it’s easy to forget to shift gears when talking with a group that falls outside of day-to-day interactions.

The result? Businesses pepper their newsletter with industry jargon, schools speak to parents as if they’re students, and nonprofits address clients, donors, and legislators in the same prescriptive manner.

The fix is easy: Close your eyes for a moment and think of the people who make up your audience. How would you address them if you were talking with them in person? Translate that tone into writing. No matter who your audience is, keep your language clear, straightforward, and professional.

Put your newsletter to the test

With this advice in mind, take out a recent newsletter or other communication and see how well it does on these measures:

  1. Does the piece focus on a small number of key messages, with no filler or irrelevant information?
  2. Have you offered something of value to readers and made it clear what you want them to do?
  3. Is the information tailored to the needs of a specific group of recipients?
  4. Does it look past issue-specific interests to engage readers?
  5. Is the text straightforward in tone and free of industry jargon, inappropriate imagery, and overly complex (or simplistic) language?
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